A Few Words on Zen’s Sex Scandals & What Might Follow

A Few Words on Zen’s Sex Scandals and What Might Follow

James Myoun Ford

Boundless Way Zen

I’ve commented here and there on the larger sex scandals touching on our Zen communities here in the West. I’ve been praised and I’ve been castigated for these comments. I liked praise better.

I can claim for good or ill the distinction of being the first of the Western Zen teachers to write an open letter to the Zen Studies Society board calling for the dismissal of the Reverend Eido Shimano. My letter was quickly followed by a cascade of other letters sent to their board, showing, I believe, if it hadn’t been me, that first letter would have been sent by another, perhaps within days. So, not lots of credit to be earned there. I also joined in signing a letter calling upon the Reverend Genpo Merzel to withdraw from teaching at least for a while in order to pursue serious counseling for his repeated misconduct with students. I gather he chose to follow that counsel for about a week. Since then I have chosen not to write anything about the Reverend Joshu Sasaki, feeling what needed to be said was being said, and that I didn’t have anything particularly useful to add to the mix.

Still, in the wake of this most recent scandal regarding the revelations of Reverend Sasaki’s decades of misbehaviors I’ve been asked by several friends to comment further. I’m not really sure this is the best time to attempt a larger picture view, but. still, I admit, I have thoughts about the larger picture of Zen in the West in the wake of these scandals, and I have attempted some smaller comments at the edges here and there. So, whether timely or not, I have something to say, and I will share these provisional ruminations here.

First, the situations regarding the Reverends Shimano and Sasaki seem from where I stand to be egregious examples of clergy malpractice, and, likely, involving outright criminal behaviors. Whatever other merits regarding their time as teachers, the consequences of their sexual misconduct will be playing out for some time. I am haunted by their victims, and can only hope for some sort of healing. I don’t think the Reverend Merzel’s behaviors rank with these other two, but his behaviors have been sufficiently beyond the pale to merit public rebuke and comments on line that future potential students would be wise to read before committing to study with him.

Beyond this there have been various other scandals and hints of scandals.

And often the only vehicle of accountability is the public forum.

As to why, requires a small digression: While in East Asia Zen disciplines and teachers are part of larger institutions, on the continent taught mostly within Vinaya monasticism, and in Japan within church structures that maintain a non-celibate clergy who are also accountable. (With minor and major lapses over the years, of course. Need I add “of course”?)

Zen as it comes West is anarchic. Individual teachers have come to this country, or people of American and European birth have traveled to Japan or other East Asian countries that transmit the Zen way in its varieties and with differing credentials have come home and taught, often with at best nominal connections to those East Asian communities. Immigrant communities have some structures, such as the Japanese Sotoshu, but rarely extend even comments on what happens outside their enclaves.

As a result there are few larger structures here in the West, and while there are some proto-denominational organizations, none has much authority, and, frankly, with few prospects of acquiring such authority. Even if a couple of organizations do jell, I think our cultural proclivities will simply mean those who don’t fit into those structures will leave and set up shop independently. Think Baptist churches (at Wikipedia, I stopped counting at fifty different denominations, and the list was continuing to go on…)

We’re dealing with a situation where our current crop of teachers can’t even agree on what to call themselves, people who’ve undergone ordinations or authorizations. Priest. Monk. Even the word teacher makes some people itch, including some of the teachers.

If we can’t agree on something so unimportant as titles, it suggests addressing any issue of real import difficult.

Which leads me to the first thing I have to say that is possibly too early to be heard in the spirit in which it is said.

Sex isn’t the problem.

What we see are a couple of actual predators, a larger number of people with bad boundaries and an even larger number of people who’ve been caught up in domestic issues, where sex was just a presenting issue. Now these are real issues and they need to be addressed and I will talk about this.


The problem really is why Zen, and if that why is compelling, how to foster it and those called to what it offers.

With that my first assertion: Zen is worth the trouble.

Zen is a particular school of Buddhism that took shape in early medieval China, bringing elements of Taoism and Confucianism to the mix, all this shaken well, and out of that poured some claims about reality and what that understanding of reality can mean in our lives, and along with that bringing a basket of practices, mokusho chan or shikantaza and kana chan or koan introspection practice, as well as a tradition of spiritual directors, experts in the practice, who have been said to have seen into the heart of the matter, who serve as guides on the way.

I have found the wisdom of Zen life saving. I have found the disciplines worth a life-time commitment.

I’ve also found the rhetoric surrounding the teacher overblown. The deep message of Zen’s liberation is into our ordinariness. We are never something other than people existing within the flow of cause and effect, we are angry or greedy or whatever, and wisdom into our boundlessness and the play of the boundless and the ordinary may mitigate, wisdom doesn’t change who we are in a fundamental way. And this remains true for our teachers as much as for anyone else.

So, I think we need teachers, but they need to be taken down a peg or two. The analogy I’ve used in the past continues to hold for me. In the Christian tradition the myth of Catholic apostolic succession and bishops as magical successors in a lineage gives way to an Anglican view, where the form of bishop is retained but seen as functional rather than magical. We need Zen teachers in succession who see themselves not as magical inheritors but as long time students entrusted with a terrible and beautiful responsibility.

And, of course, that’s happening. An unintended consequence, I guess, of the current rash of sex scandals. Not, I suspect, that there was anything much more in mind at the time than sex. And, so, for the perpetrators the hurt of those who’ve been abused is also an unintended consequence. I feel terrible that many people have been hurt, some terribly, by this abuse of authority. And their healing is primary.

But, if there’s much good coming with this, it is that we will look at teachers from now on with different eyes. Not completely, of course, there are already those who say “real” teachers are incapable of misbehavior. They are simply putting off their own sad discoveries about what it means to be human…


So, here we are. There are these sex scandals. And their consequences will play out. I don’t want by these bare words to convey anything less than the magnitude of some of these events and the cascade of hurt that has and will follow, while acknowledging every situation is not the same, nor should all be reduced to the worst possible imagination.

That said: what next?

Here’s an assertion: People have a right to certain behavioral expectations from those who would teach Zen.

This means people who teach Zen have to step up to the plate and accept responsibility. A little less, “I’m not a priest. I’m an artist” Or, its complementary “What I do is for your good,” whatever that do might be. What we need from teachers is a lot more humility in the face of terrible responsibilities. And if one isn’t able to be a grown up about it, to take off the robe. People should not be Zen teachers if they are not willing to be held to standards, and yes, standards a bit higher than other people.

For good or ill, and probably it would be a mix, we are unlikely to have larger institutions to enforce these things. So, every teacher who teaches and their community however informally organized should have published and workable ethical guidelines. If you don’t have one, feel free to adapt the Boundless Way ethical guidelines. They’re linked at the BoWZ front page. And of course it isn’t just about sex, but what’s confidential, what’s not, as well as how decisions are made. Transparency is needed and public codes are the first step in making what can be clear, clear…

I don’t think these guidelines should be the same for every group. But, every group needs to have guidelines.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be violated. Groups end up having group minds. And while there can be in fact good things in this coming together, there is only a heartbeat from culture to cult.

So, people who feel called to this project have to accept some personal responsibility. This project is about becoming spiritually mature.

And with all the failures, the possibility remains.

For all of us.

Of winning a victory worthy of all the risks.

(James’ most recent book is If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life)

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  • Stephen Slottow

    Philip Kapleau used to make the point that Zen teachers are not gurus–they are not magical, they don’t have absolute authority, and they don’t (or shouldn’t) presume to dictate what students should do in every aspect of their lives; they are guides, human beings who have gone sufficiently far in their training to instruct others and have some teaching authorizations to do so–but still, in some sense, students themselves. “Shakyamuni is still practicing, and he’s only halfway there!” And the student doesn’t abdicate responsibility. Aitken made the same points repeatedly. I agree that written guidelines are terribly important; they act as a touchstone, and need to be constructed with care. Also: there has been too much fixation on sexual incidents to the exclusion of other questionable dealings by some teachers that involve finance and authority outside the sexual realm.

  • http://www.mushim.wordpress.com Mushim Ikeda

    Although it is painful and inconsistent, progress in the positive direction is happening in U.S. Zen communities, overall, in my opinion. Many years ago, Robert Aitken Roshi was so bold as to say to me, “Poetry and Zen are the same.” He loved poetry, and so did I — I had my MFA freshly in hand from Univ. of Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop (poetry) when I was “sidetracked” into Zen, or so I thought. Looking back, the connection is clear, as Aitken Roshi had commented. Poetry and Zen have the potential to tap directly into the realm of powerful spiritual currents and energies that can be life-giving, transformative, and liberatory. That potential is not a guarantee, however, and in my opinion it has been reduced by a number of different elements, up to now, in the U.S.
    Among those elements are Orientalism, lack of cultural safeties that may be present in the Asian societies that Zen / Chan / Son / Thien have traveled to the U.S. from, absence of cultural safeties that need to be instituted in U.S. cultures as Zen takes root, lack of understanding or acknowledging among teachers of projection/transference/countertransference, wishful and magical thinking, lack of standardized professional codes of ethics for U.S. Zen teachers, insufficient emphasis on the precepts or lack of holding teachers accountable to a “normal” (person on the street) understanding of the precepts, and last but not least, the tenet of Zen which proclaims that it is “a special transmission outside the scriptures.” All of these elements, along with consideration of the historical context of U.S. counterculture movements in the sixties and seventies, and the potential for things to go bad (particularly issues of sex and money) when power differentials are not held within structures of peer review and behavioral norms, have, I believe, limited but not erased the positive and beautiful potential of Zen practice, teachings, and cultural arts to help the many beings.
    Everyone is vulnerable to sexual and other kinds of violence — some more than others due to structural inequities — and everyone is vulnerable to being financially exploited and deceived, some more than others. Everyone, deep down, wishes to love and to feel respected, valued, loved and accepted and cared for. (When I say “everyone,” I mean 99.9% of people, to leave a little room for diversity.) These are vulnerabilities and needs that come along with being a human being. When our U.S. Zen communities and teachers learn through difficult and painful experience how to nurture spiritual growth and maturity for everyone, creating as little injury and harm as possible, we may see a new flowering of Zen that does not depend on Asian cultural elements or hierarchical structures for its power and relevance.

  • http://drizzleanddew.blogspot.com/ Kogen

    Nine bows, sir. So tactful, accurate, beneficial, and an improvement on this discourse.

    Gratitude in the ten directions, three times,


  • Peter Wilson

    I have been sitting with a small group in Santa Rosa, CA for just a little over a year now so the scope of my understanding is very limited. Shortly after I started, I caught wind of a sex scandal by a well know Zen teacher in our city, his writing had provided a big part of my knowledge and attraction of and for the US Zen movement. I have to say that it burst my bubble, I realized that I needed to take a closer look at what I was getting into, but I can see now in retrospect a bit more clearly that Zen is about dealing with these realities, in my practice and in my relationship with the larger movement. I could not agree more that the public forum is the best place to deal with the issues underlying the errant behavior of our leaders. I believe now is a good time to turn this “knock” into a “boost”. How we deal with this will be our legacy, we have ample example of how not to deal with it. Let’s not learn only by OUR mistakes. Open statements and discussion like this help give weight to our efforts to heal those who have been injured and I count every Zen student, at every stage, among the injured. Regards.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/edsbriefbio Ed Kenzan and Mary Keion Levin

    Very well done. You have modeled the humility, maturity, and kindness you espouse.

  • Chris

    Insightful reflections. I’ve found Zen training to be a integral part of my life for many years. However, the e-mails I receive when stories about these abuses hit nytimes or one of my friends picks up Shoes Outside the Door question my involvement in such a patriarchal institution.

    I live in Amherst and there is a teacher here who preys on female members of his sangha. It has been going on for years. He is an independent teacher so he is accountable to no one. I’m sure there are dozens of these relatively unknown predators. We are all implicated in these scandals by virtue of our association with Zen, what to do?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Dear Chris,
    A number of us at Boundless Way started with the person you’ve alluded to.
    Some have made it their work to expose all those who cross boundaries. And good on them – so long, that is, they don’t degenerate into witch hunters.
    I think the most important thing I can do is to be part of a project that re-frames what it means to practice Zen in the West today that helps shift us from the perfect master and only real Zen group model of things. While far from perfect, I think BoWZ is an example of what that might look like.


  • http://mettai.blogspot.com Mettai Cherry

    Thank you for acknowledging the large part that Taoism and Confucianism plan in Zen Buddhism. What I’d like to see emerge from this is also a re-integration of some of the practices from Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism combined with an egalitarian community structure. Now that I’ve been separated from my source teacher and allowed to see other practices, I realize that they are rich and varied. One of the worst abuses of power that ‘Zen Teachers’ do is to declare that they are ‘the only one’ and the others are invalid.

  • Craig

    There would be no scandals if there weren’t teachers. Anyone who calls themselves a ‘teacher of the dharma’ or such nonsense should be castigated at all costs. Zen in the US is the antithesis of liberation. It’s the perpetuation of Capitalist drones for the hyper-consumer culture.